Throughout the years, the Giants' defense has been identified by their linebackers, the stalwarts who narrow and shorten the field for opposing offenses.
Lately, they have been short on manpower in the LB corps and the Giants' defense has been one predicated on takeaways rather than shutting teams down with pressure. They have allowed 420.9 yards per game theough the first ten weeks of this NFL season, just slightly less that the league's worst defense, the porous New Orleans Saints.
The season began with high hopes for LB coach Jim Herrmann's unit. Jon Beason was healthy again and would man the MIKE position. Devon Kennard, after a strong showing in his rookie season, would be the SAM and the Jaguars' J.T. Thomas was signed to play the WILL.
Of course, this plan never really got off the ground. Beason was hobbled by knee and ankle injuries, limiting him to playin in parts of just four games. He was placed on season-ending IR on Nov. 7. Kennard strained a hamstring in the Giants' Week 4 win over Buffalo, then missed two games and is still rounding back into shape. Thomas has missed the past three games with an ankle injury.
Last week against the New England Patriots, the Giants started Jasper Brinkley at MIKE, Jonathan Casillas at WLB and Kennard at SAM. Brinkley was only playing because the Giants' No. 2 MLB, Uani 'Unga was out with a stinger. He was leading the Giants in tackles until he broke down three weeks ago.
Casillas has been a nice addition to the team. Coming over from New England vis free agency this past offseason, Casillas has shown not only his penchant for special teams play but is second on the club in total tackles with 51.
The injuries are part of the game, Herrmann said last week in his media session. The position is a focal one that includes constant movement and contact.
"I think it's the nature of the position. You have to do it in this League, you've got to be ready for injuries at any given time, so guys have to double up duty," Herrmann said when asked about the mixing and matching due to injuries this season.
"They're learning," he continued. "Some will play WILL linebacker in base, some may have to back up the MIKE, some may have to back up the SAM. When we get into the sub-packages, that's where the guys have really got to know, okay what's my role, where am I going to be playing, who am I backing up, and they do a good job. They're all smart men and it's a help for me, because I can say, 'OK, here's your double duty this week, here's your double duty this week' and they all understand."
"A lot of times they don't get reps at the second position, but they've got to know what's going on and all my guys are very scheme-conscious," he added. "They have an idea of what we're trying to get done from each of the positions, so it makes it a lot easier for me as a coach to be able to have smart guys that know how to do that."
But the results have been mixed. Kennard is a high-ceiling guy with a pedigree and the Giants are seeking stardom from him. The rest are journeymen and free agents. If Kennard can stay healthy, the Giants' defense will benefit. Herrmann confirmed that Kennard was wearing the radio from the SAM slot and he has liked the progress he's made this season over his rookie year.
"I think just now he's more involved in all the packages and we can use him in multiple positions; on the ball, setting the edge, we can put him as a roam-around kind of guy in sub, we can stick him back off the ball in a four-man front as an inside backer," said Herrmann. "To me, his overall understanding of the game has gone up tremendously. I think from year one to year two, that's probably the biggest improvement that he's made is being able to go in and do all of that and feel comfortable and taking the role of taking the defensive signal and getting guys lined up. I like where he's at."
With Beason probably gone for good, the Giants would like to get Unga, a UDFA out of BYU that the Giants latched onto last winter and then made the team, back in the fold soon and continue to develop him. Unga had been a violent run-stopper this season but was exposed in space on passing plays.
"Coming in like he did, probably no one in the NFL world even knew who he was," Herrmann said of Unga. "He was a kid in college who made plays and was always around the ball and understands the game. He did a great job coming in this year and going in the first Dallas game and making plays. He's one of our most productive guys. I like where he's at, we've got to get him fixed up in terms of his injury, but he'll add great depth to whoever we put out there."
The Giants are a long way from the days of their great LB corps, but in today's NFL that may not be the worst thing in the world. Lineman and secondary personnel are more valued by GMs these days but if you can get yourself a couple of decent linebackers, you can survive. The Giants are trying to convince themselves they have some good ones.